When Ireland went into lockdown in March, Alan Flynn did something he had never done before: he chained up the gates of the sports field that has been at the centre of life in his county Kilkenny village for generations.
Mr Flynn is chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Bennettsbridge, a stronghold of hurling, the ancient stick and ball game that is Ireland’s national sport and the world’s fastest field game. But when sport was closed down in the effort to stem the spread of coronavirus, all matches and training were cancelled.
“We actually put a physical lock on the gate,” he said. “That was when it hit home.”
August is normally peak season for hurling and its sister sport Gaelic football — amateur games played to professional standards before huge crowds.
This weekend should be the culmination of the hurling championship that is as important to Irish sports fans as the Super Bowl is to Americans. But Covid-19 halted that, with hotly contested inter-county matches postponed until autumn and the flagship All-Ireland final that was meant to take place on Sunday deferred until December.
“These games are central to Ireland’s social and cultural life,” said Paul Rouse, a University College Dublin academic who has written a history of hurling. “There are rituals which are absolutely rooted around people who meet up at these games.”
The biggest matches draw more than 80,000 spectators to Croke Park in Dublin and huge national television audiences. Except for lavish salaries — players are not paid for their endeavours — there are all the hallmarks of top-level sport: match-day razzmatazz; extreme fitness; guru managers; lucrative TV rights; business sponsors; and swanky corporate hospitality.
And although hurling and other sports resumed in June as the Irish government unwound the lockdown, crowds are restricted to 200 — including players and officials.
Such limits have added to the woes of the GAA, Ireland’s biggest sporting organisation with more than 2,200 clubs, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. About 1.5m people attend championship games over the season while even local matches can draw thousands of spectators. Not this year.
The result has been to push the GAA back to the community roots that make it, for many, the essence of Irish life and identity. Doing so has reinforced the foundations of an organisation that relies on volunteers and players who turn out for pride and not pay.
“You represent your parish, your town or your village . . . It’s that representation of place that’s dramatically different [to professional sport] because there’s no transfer market,” said Mr Rouse, a former manager of Offaly Gaelic football team. “That binds people in the communities and that’s what lends it a depth of feeling.”
The club at Bennettsbridge dates to 1888, four years after the GAA was established to promote Irish games amid a wider nationalist project that led ultimately to independence from Britain in 1922.
The area has produced a number of hurling “dynasties”, families known for turning out top players through the generations, and people talk still of a legendary local side that swept the boards half a century ago. Kilkenny’s county team has won more All-Ireland titles than any other.
The ground at Bennettsbridge is a far cry from Croke Park. A hay barn can be seen at one end of the pitch, houses on the other and trains rumble past on a nearby line.
In compliance with the rules, only a small crowd was permitted to gather in the sunshine one evening this week to watch “The Bridge” take on a local rival. There were cheers and shouts as the watching spectators urged the players on: “Come on lads”, “Watch the break”, “That’s it, stay on him.” The home side emerged victorious, beating rivals Barrow Rangers by 1 goal and 19 points to 1 goal and 10 points.
Hurling means “next to everything” to local people, said Christy Kenny, an insurance broker who was one of those in attendance. “Everybody talks about hurling: who’s winning the matches at the weekend, who’s playing well. It’s a topic of conversation every day in Kilkenny.”
But hurling’s role in Irish life extends beyond sport into the fabric of society — which came to the fore as the virus struck. As the lockdown closed down large swaths of the economy and sent people into isolation, many elderly people turned to their local club for help.
Clubs organised food deliveries to people confined to their homes and the GAA opened its stadiums for virus testing. “The calls came in and we answered them,” said Mr Flynn. “You didn’t have to ask twice for people to help out. If they needed [groceries], if they needed medication, that was all done. Even just to drop in and say ‘hello’.”
Colette Murphy, a credit union official who was watching her son play in the Bennettsbridge game, said the sport was a “lifeline” to rural areas, many of which still bear deep scars from the economic crisis a decade ago.
“[But] for the GAA in our area we’d be lost,” she said, explaining that up to 100 children trained locally every week before the pandemic hit.
“All the small villages are dying,” she said. “The one thing that’s really alive is hurling.”